Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. This March, we revisit the sumptuous, romantic, deeply humanistic works of Hong Kong’s favored son, Wong Kar-wai. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Though My Blueberry Nights has been largely left untouched in the renaissance of Wong Kar-wai’s work like the pies at its center of the film, it’s finally time to cut a slice and see what can be savored. From the outside, it looks like a Kar-wai blueberry pie. It has a sugar crisped lid that’s inviting and promises hidden depths. Yet, as our fork reaches the bottom, we find it soggy.
My Blueberry Nights isn’t crisp, but it’s perfectly edible, even delicious at times. From opening shots of melting ice cream coursing through abstract closeups of blueberry pie filling, we know immediately that this film is going to be sat-ur-ated. The images are visually sumptuous but aren’t matched in full richness by the narrative. This film has the right ingredients. There just seems to have been a problem with the baking.
It begins with a perfectly sweet meet cute. Elizabeth (Norah Jones) stumbles into a humble New York City cafe fresh from a break up. Behind the bar is Jeremy (Jude Law), the hottie-proprietor. The two develop an attraction over a series of visits and after hours bites of pie, Elizabeth particularly identifying with the blueberry pies that remain untouched. But Elizabeth doesn’t know who she wants to be, and needs to know before she can be in another relationship.
And so the narrative spills out from the quaint cafe to the open road. Elizabeth finds herself working in Memphis diners and dive bars where she observes the local comings and goings, learning from her regulars like Arnie (David Strathairn), an alcoholic police officer struggling with the end of his marriage to the volcanic Sue Lynn (Rachel Weisz). As Elizabeth begins to learn a lesson about love and life in this couple, it’s tragically cut in half, scattering her to the road once more.
This film has the right ingredients. There just seems to have been a problem with the baking.
She next lands a job as a waitress in a small casino outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. Always the doe-eyed ethnographer, Elizabeth is soon drawn to the beautiful but brazen Leslie (Natalie Portman), a gambler with a heart of fool’s gold. Together, the two scheme to win money to get Elizabeth a car, which doesn’t go as planned. But just when she thinks she’s been beaten by a bluff, her luck changes.
After 300 nights, Elizabeth returns to New York and to Jeremy, who’s been frantically trying to follow her breadcrumb trails of postcards. The two reconnect over the place he’s left set for her. No longer cast aside, filled with a juicy sense of self, and wrapped in a blue sweater, topped with a green knit hat, she has become the blueberry. And all is as sweet as pie.
The trouble is, the 90 minute feature wraps up too quickly. We don’t get to see Elizabeth apply or demonstrate any of the things she’s learned. She hasn’t seen rose-colored images about humanity in her brief travels, yet we aren’t privy to how those complex lessons play out in her life with and without Jeremy. Indeed, it feels as if nothing has changed save for the hour and half of time. The middle two chapters seem largely inconsequential to the narrative because we see no consequence. A fully baked film would have allowed for a little more time with Elizabeth back in New York to fully crisp up the point of her journey and its effect(s) on her life.
But though the middle two chapters may be inconsequential to the narrative, that doesn’t have to mean they’re inconsequential to the film, per se. They reveal a great deal about Wong Kar-wai through his translations of American cultural exports.
“I love Tennessee Williams,” Kar-wai says on the making-of featurette of the Blueberry DVD (no Bluray, as yet, exists — always a blueberry, never a pie.) Indeed, the Memphis chapter with Arnie and Sue Lynn is a Tennessee Williams one act written by Wong Kar-wai. Like Williams’ New Orleans or Key West, Kar-wai picks a likewise steamy crossroads, one where the air is thick with the blues and unhappy people drink. Heavily.
In a clever inverse, Elizabeth comes to rely on the unkindness of strangers. Sue Lynn is a brilliant recreation of the Damned Dame in the tradition of Williams’ own Blanche DuBois and Alma Winemuller. Rachel Weisz understands this perfectly, herself already having performed Suddenly Last Summer on stage (and would play Blanche Dubois two years after Blueberry).
Weisz is able to navigate the melodramatic impossibilities of Sue Lynn’s marriage and own happiness with a commanding grip. Weisz and Strathairn feel at obvious comfort and thus can truly vault their talents to their full heights. This relationship could have been nonsense, something we’ve seen so much it has no meaning. But Weisz and Strathairn are able to tear at the air with believable, weighted pathos while we, like Norah Jones, grow smaller in the corner.
After we leave the turbulent world of a Tennessee Williams play, we drive straight into New Hollywood Cinema, another major cultural export that no doubt left a lasting impression on the director. “She reminded me of Gena Rowlands,” Kar-wai says of casting Natalie Portman. Portman’s Leslie is the quintessential New Hollywood woman like those we see in Cassavettes, Altman, and/or Lumet: she’s independent, but spiritually and emotionally adrift because of that independence. She sees the way the game is played, even has a spot at the table, but cannot find her place within it. She wears big sunglasses, the accessory for any New Hollywood Woman.
The trouble is, the 90 minute feature wraps up too quickly.
Natalie Portman’s got the right kind of visible intelligence needed to carry this off. Leslie has to appear carefree, but is actually careless and terrified. Portman peers over her cards, her eyes telling us she is keeping something close to her chest. It’s secrets, secrets she keeps from the other players, Elizabeth, and more importantly, herself. She’s a cardsharp on every level.
As Leslie struggles, gambling to get by in the fading towns around Vegas or in Vegas itself, we get to see the fringes of decline starting to reappear. New Hollywood Cinema was impacted by economic depression and here Kar-wai returns, in 2007, with a New Hollywood lens to magnify mainland America’s returning disillusionment.
The frame story of two lovers meeting in a cafe is near universal. Kar-wai’s original intent was to set the whole film in New York cafe’s, but the producers insisted he open the film up to save money so he had to improvise more than usual. What he drew from was the Americana living in his head: diners, casinos, Tennessee Williams, “driving West,” New Hollywood Cinema, smooth jazz in cramped cafes. In the early 2000s, you couldn’t get coffee without hearing Norah Jones and My Blueberry Nights makes this doubly true.
When we slice into My Blueberry Nights, its contents run out all over the plate. If it had baked longer and firmed up the casing, so that it was strong enough to support and contain the juicy narrative ingredients in between. Though it may not teach us anything new about pie, this treat shows the heart of its chef, and Kar-wai’s delectable and unique worldview.